Study Says Training Can Fuel Bad Post-Shooting Reactions

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The latest study of officers’ reactions during and after shootings has yielded some upbeat conclusions–and some surprises.

The full report, “Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings,” is available in both Word and pdf formats at:


Under a federal grant, Klinger used questionnaires and personal interviews to explore the emotional, psychological and physical reactions of 80 officers and sheriff’s deputies who were involved in 113 confrontations in which they shot someone.

Immediately prior to or upon firing, 95 per cent said they experienced 1 or more of the perceptual phenomena that by now are commonly documented, such as tunnel vision, heightened visual detail, auditory blunting, time distortions and so on. Many also found their post-shooting recollection of the events to be “imperfect.” In extreme cases, officers could not recall even firing their guns.

Contrary to what some had expected from their training, however, few officers in the study suffered any long-lasting negative effects from a shooting.

Even in the short term, a sizeable percentage experienced no or only one negative reaction during the first day and week after the shooting. At 3 months, most officers reported no lingering negative physical or mental reactions. Past that point only 3 specific adverse reactions persisted in more than 10 per cent of those surveyed: trouble sleeping (11 per cent), fear of legal or administrative problems (11 per cent), and recurrent thoughts (37 per cent). 14 per cent reported unspecified “other” thoughts or feelings.

In contrast, nearly 30 per cent of officers felt “elation” after a shooting, which included “joy at being alive, residual excitement after a life-threatening situation, and satisfaction or pride in proving their ability to use deadly force appropriately.” This compares with only 12 per cent who felt any “guilt.”

During Klinger’s interviews, several officers said they thought something “might be wrong with them” because they did not experience the long-term disruptive symptoms (including severe guilt and depression) that “training [had] taught them to expect.” Indeed, some felt that through the power of suggestion conveyed by training that “their reactions were more severe than they would have been otherwise.”

Many officers who underwent mandatory post-shooting counseling reported that the experience was not positive for them, although 3 officers who did suffer long-term depression found counseling to be helpful.

Most officers who shared the negative impression of counseling “said they believed their department required counseling to shield itself from legal liability, not to help the officers themselves,” according to a synopsis of Klinger’s findings published in the January [’06] issue of NIJ Journal, from the National Institute of Justice. “They stated that they did not talk frankly to the counselors because they did not trust them” or thought they were incompetent. Several admitted to lying to counselors about their reactions.

“This contrasts with officers’ willingness to discuss the shooting with fellow officers who had also been involved in shootings and suggests that peer counseling may be more helpful to these officers than mandatory critical incident debriefings,” the summary states.

“[O]fficers who felt a lack of support from their colleagues and supervisors” or who believed that “aspects of the investigation into the shooting were unfair or unprofessional reported more severe and longer-lasting negative reactions following the shooting, particularly after 3 months.”

Commenting on the study, Dr. Bill Lewinski, head of the Force Science Research Center told Force Science News:

“Training on critical incident responses should avoid teaching that officers WILL experience any particular symptoms during or after a shooting or other potentially traumatic event. They MAY experience adverse reactions–or they may not. Either way is psychologically ‘normal.’”

As to officers’ negative reactions to counseling, the primary problem, Lewinski suspects, is inappropriate, inexperienced counselors.

“Departments need to make more of an effort to hire the right kind of counseling professionals, who can do the job well and not inflict harm,” Lewinski says. “A counselor who doesn’t understand cops and the nitty-gritty of street encounters won’t be trusted.

“But properly trained, empathetic and realistic counselors can build rapport, readily identify those officers who do need therapeutic assistance and also be helpful in getting an officer to move forward in a positive way after a shooting, even if the officer is not suffering any serious post-event symptoms.”

[Thanks to Master Police Officer Tom Moy with University of Delaware DPS for forwarding word of the NIJ’s final report on this study.]

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